The Clinch for Self-Defense: Embodying the Shuto Uke

“Generally speaking all kata use the so-called postures (kamae). In fact, there are many kinds of postures and many kinds of kata. While learning these postures should not be totally ignored, we must be careful not to overlook that they’re just forms or templates of sort; it is the function of their application which needs to be mastered.”

Motobu Choki, Watashi no Karate-justu (1932), translation by Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy

This video summarizes a morning of training from my first seminar (hooray!).  We explored two applications in our effort to move beyond choreography into feeling the function of each technique.

The context for each application was a self-defense scenario, getting caught off-guard by an attack and using techniques from naihanchi and kusanku to gain control of the threat. The stated objective was to enter, control the threat, incapacitate the attacker, and disengage quickly.

These application sequences contain a number of principles that we covered in-depth during the workshop and provide practice for embodying the shuto uke under pressure from a partner. In this context the templates of the kata (hand position, weight distribution, and the mechanics of turning and footwork) are illuminated. By understanding the principles of the kata we are free to respond in the moment rather than be tied to a sequence.

The sequences in the traditional kata of karate are not sport-focused, they are designed for self-defense. This is an important distinction to make when exploring the bunkai. We need to be conscious of the risks of sustained grappling in a self-defense context, these include:

  • The threat has or may have a weapon.
  • The threat might not be alone.
  • The goal of self-defense is to escape safely, not extend or escalate the conflict. Additionally, if you’re seen to continue to escalate and engage a conflict you can be deemed complicit in the altercation and susceptible to legal penalties.

That said, it can be tactically necessary to gain control of the threat with clinching techniques. Some reasons it can be useful to clinch:

  • In an ambush or surprise altercation the immediate panic response may be to grab onto the attacker and control the limbs that are attacking you.
  • Hitting a moving target during a stress response is challenging. You can increase accuracy by setting a data-point with your hands and controlling the target.
  • Feeling is faster than seeing. In the chaos of a fight it may be safer to trust your sense of touch to isolate targets and avoid strikes.

This is not a flow drill, nor is it a sport sequence where the focus might be on improving your position against your partner. Working in those contexts are valuable and incredibly fun and absolutely a part of karate, but it’s important to balance training with practical survival-based drills as well. The drill concludes with creating space and moving toward an exit, specifically, one of the two exits in the dojo.

By giving this particular drill a clear ending we’re training the mindset of self-defense in karate: to stop the attack, incapacitate the threat, and escape. With enough trust and training with our partners we can also escalate the intensity of the drill. Were we to shift the objective to skill-building we might prolong the grappling element of the application and make it into a game.

Big thanks to my student Dane for being the uke in this video!

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